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Food Safety Testing Program On The Budget Chopping Block

The USDA's Microbiological Data Program will be cut if Congress passes the proposed budget bill. How will this affect food safety for Americans?

E. coli

Photo: agrilifetoday (Flickr)

The Microbiological Data Program is the only government organization that regularly checks produce samples for food-borne pathogens like E. coli. Pictured here, E. coli are the rod-shaped bacteria inside the pore on a green lettuce leaf.

Deficit Reduction Vs. Food Safety

Even as the deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany is linked to produce, the United States Congress may cut the USDA’s Microbiological Data Program, the only national screening program that regularly tests produce for food borne illness.

According to the House’s report on the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill, the Microbiological Data Program was not funded because “while food safety is a vitally important part of successfully marketing produce and other agricultural products, other Federal and state public health agencies are better equipped to perform this function.” They recommend outsourcing the testing duties to state health departments.

In response to the E. coli outbreak in Germany, Representative Hansen Clarke (D-MI) has proposed an amendment to the bill that would restore $1 million of the Microbiological Data Program’s funds. According to the amendment, President Obama requested that $5 million be budgeted for the program. As the bill stands, though, the Microbiological Data Program will receive no funding at all in 2012.

Overstepping Its Bounds?

The fruit and vegetable industry has a history of lobbying against the Microbiological Data Program, saying that the tests it conducts lead to product recalls. The Fruit and Vegetable Industry Advisory Committee advised the USDA that the Microbiological Data Program funds could be “better used elsewhere.”

These critics say that the Microbiological Data Program started as an organization that was supposed to only monitor produce and present the data to the industry so that producers could make improvements.

However, the fruit and vegetable industry say the program has overstepped its bounds because the USDA pulls products off the market that test positively for bacteria in Microbiological Data Program studies.

They argue that the Microbiological Data Program is responsible for “unnecessary product recalls that do not contribute to the protection of the public health, undermine consumer confidence in the safety of the produce supply chain, discourages the consumption of produce … and damages the reputation of the farmers growing it, along with (causing) financial injury.”

They point out that not all positive pathogen samples lead to illness, and sometimes products are recalled based on a single positive result.

Consumer Protection

Those who support the Microbiological Data Program and want the government to continue to fund it argue that instead of punishing businesses, independent testing helps protect consumers and can assist the industry in producing a better product.

Consumer advocacy groups say that the independent testing conducted at the Microbiological Data Program is crucial to protect citizens from harmful pathogens. They also praise its efficiency and uniformity and its ability to provide results that are unbiased by commercial interests.

Although meat products are tested by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (which has a budget of $900 million for tracking pathogens alone), incidents like the German E. coli outbreak highlight how much fruits and vegetables increasingly affect the overall food safety of the country.

Like its sister program the Pesticide Data Program (which monitors pesticide levels in produce and is also criticized by the agriculture industry), negative pressure against it may influence Congress to approve the bill.

Commercial Interests

Some argue that the Microbiological Data Program lost its funding because of agribusiness industry pressure, and that some industry leaders’ opposition to independent testing reveals their prioritization of profits over food safety. The Microbiological Data Program is “an independent look at the microbial status (of produce), and so I can’t see how any company would not want this information unless they don’t think much of their own capacity for food safety. I would think that any responsible company would want to improve that,” says Michael Hansen, a scientist with Consumers Union.

Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group, agrees. The bill “may serve the interests of agribusiness, but it’s a serious disservice to consumers and public health. Since when does it make sense not to check food for potentially deadly pathogens?”

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Julie Rooney

Julie Rooney is a vegetarian, musician, and artist who primarily works in video and new media. Currently she is the director of Low Road Gallery, a non-profit contemporary art gallery located in Greencastle, Indiana.

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